Age of War (Part LVI)

Saffrey rode through the archway that led into the Enclave and gaped at the scene unfolding before him. His army was in complete disarray, some cowering beneath their shields, others trying to flee, some brave souls attempting a desperate counter-attack. But most were lying on the ground, dead or dying. Arrows fell in continuous volleys from every direction, and he flinched instinctively as he craned his neck upwards and saw the archers on the walls. He’d always suspected this would become a massacre – he just hadn’t imagined he’d be on this side of it. He growled under his breath as his Chronusi guard stared around them helplessly. He made an emphatic gesture. “Go and do something!”

The captain stared up at him helplessly from behind his armoured veil. “But, my lord, how can we…”

“I thought you were the best of the best! Go and do your jobs!”

That seemed to do the trick, and they moved out into the fray, raising their shields over their heads and forming an armoured phalanx that waded across the plaza. They’d have to take the buildings the Atlasians held. It was as simple as that. It could be done. He still had the numbers: he just had to get this mess sorted out, minimise the losses, stick to his plan. He’d been meticulous. The city was almost his! It would be madness to abandon the fight now. He kicked his horse’s flanks and tried to find Hadrin. She’d be around here somewhere, holding the line. He scanned the churning mass of soldiers for an island of calm, but none was apparent. He wondered whether she was dead. That would be unfortunate. As troops ran past him, heading for the gates, he roared at them, ordering them back to the front. It did no good. His voice didn’t carry over the tumult, and even if they’d heard and obeyed him, how could they possibly form up in any kind of good order? They’d brought no banners, no horns or drums, nothing to coordinate an army. The idea was to rush in, attacking in secrecy and darkness, not engage in a stand-up fight in unfavourable conditions.

How did this happen? he silently asked himself. What had gone wrong? Arrows still fell. He kept his horse moving, ploughing across bodies on the paving slabs. There was blood everywhere and he grimaced with distaste. Fresh troops were entering through the gates now, and there seemed to be a shift in the momentum of the fight. With his own Chronusi infantry leading the way, a ragged battle line began to form. Cataphracts found one another and started to organise into columns. Their heavy armour was almost proof against the enemy’s missiles, and they’d taken few casualties. He’d always found their archaic scale horse armour rather laughable, but now he saw it had its advantages. He drew his own sword. He had no intention of wielding it in anger today, but it was important for the look of the thing. Let them see a true Emperor in battle, amongst his loyal warriors! Perhaps there was a way he could turn this to his advantage…

Horns sounded. Saffrey frowned as he tried to locate their source, turning this way and that. Those troops still standing did the same. The phalanx, now at the tip of a spearhead of soldiers heading for the open door of a large building dead ahead, paused. The arrows stopped. Everything was silent save for the groans of the wounded. Saffrey breathed out a cloud of steam. The flickering light of the braziers set all around leant the whole scene in the plaza a ghastly aspect. Shadow and light vied for dominance in this place of death and carnage. Another horn blared, and gradually the call was taken up by dozens more. Then he heard them coming: the sound of hooves sparking on stone, an avalanche heading right for them, from every direction at once. They exploded from the paths that led from the plaza into the interior of the Enclave. These gentle avenues were winding, picturesque lanes, flanked with trees and exquisite sculptures, wide roads whose only traffic consisted of ambling politicians or nobles, and the occasional hurried servant. Now they disgorged a nightmare wall of steaming horseflesh as dozens of columns of cavalry roared out and into the plaza, where the already beleaguered army did its best to defend itself against the devastating charge. There were token attempts to raise shields, form phalanxes, lift pikes, but it was no good. The archers stood silently on their perches. Saffrey could only watch as the entire front half of his army, including the Chronusi honour guard, were smashed between two heavy cavalry companies. They rampaged through his lines, criss-crossing and sowing more carnage. The tentative rally was stillborn: now turning into the complete rout it had always threatened to become.

That’s when he saw him. At first, he almost thought a ghost had come riding from the Chamber of Memory, a revenant seeking his head as recompense for the suffering he had inflicted. He knew that armour. He’d seen it worn once, long ago, when he was a hardly even a man. Its wearer had been on parade with his troops, riding stiffly at the head of a company of knights – men he’d never lead in any real battle – but he’d seemed impressive enough. He should have known instantly that this was something different altogether. This was someone who belonged where he was, here and now. This was a figure of legend, the Son of Atlas, something from a dream; or a nightmare. His great black stallion reared up as his sword gleamed in the orange firelight. He wore the armour of the Emperor and, if Saffrey had had any doubt that Albrihn’s true sire was Atlantis’s former ruler, they were dispelled now. That’s how this had happened: that’s what he’d overlooked. Putting all your efforts into the slim chance that a pawn might make it to the enemy’s side and become a more powerful piece was a sure sign of an inexperienced player but sometimes…sometimes…it paid off. With a bitten off curse, he tugged at his horse’s reins and wheeled sharply around. Enemies poured from every direction, but he’d spent most of his life in the Enclave, and he knew paths they couldn’t take. He would not be denied. This wasn’t over yet. With a snarl he left his army to their fate, riding off into the night.

*

Hadrin didn’t get much chance to enjoy being unconscious. The noise brought her back to her senses fast enough, and she found herself stumbling up to her feet, sword held in one shaky hand. She was surrounded by a group of soldiers from her own regiment, tough veterans she’d known for years, but she saw real fear in their eyes now. They sheltered beneath shields held aloft, and there was a steady thunk-thunk as arrows drove their way into them. She staggered forward and dropped down to one knee. Her ankle throbbed, but it was nothing compared to the agony in her shoulder. Aydis, a lieutenant with the fourth company, looked at her. “Commander…what’s happening?”

“We’re losing, that’s what’s happening.” Hadrin took the chance to look at her shoulder. Dark blood was seeping through her uniform. The shaft had been broken off in her fall and now splintered wood protruded from the wound. She could feel the arrowhead scraping against bone as she lifted her arm experimentally, and she almost passed out again.

“What do we do?” Aydis’s eyes were wide. She was a good soldier, at least as far as Hadrin remembered. Who was her captain again? She couldn’t think straight.

“We can’t go that way,” she said, gesturing forward, away from the gates. “And we’re going to get bottlenecked going the other way.”

“What then? Fight?”

Some part of her wanted that, yes. To go down with her teeth bared, sword in her hand, screaming her defiance at the foe. But what purpose would that serve? She knew the rebellion was dead. Maybe it had been doomed from the start. “Maybe there’s a chance we can…”

The refrain of horns interrupted her, and she risked a peek over the wall of shields that sheltered them. Her heart began to thump as she heard the hooves coming and she knew what was about to happen even before she saw the first rank of horses burst out from between the delicate buildings that surrounded them. Cavalry. Rykall again, no doubt. The second time she’d been caught out by this trick, she reflected ruefully. They hit them from both sides. She and her troops were near the centre, just a little way back from the front of the army, which was swept away in moments. There was fighting, knots of warriors trying to mount a counter-attack. Around her, the soldiers were reaching for pikes, instinctively defending themselves against the charge. “No…” she started to tell them, but her voice was lost in the screams, the war cries, the clash of steel and the thunder of hooves. Cataphracts tried to stand their ground against the fresher Atlasian heavy cavalry, but they were no match for them in these conditions. Cataphracts needed to charge, or they were just too clumsy. Out of formation, without banners or horns, leaders slain, they were easy prey. She saw Rykall then, great bellowing tyrant in his armour and helmet, identifiable by his hideous blade, the incomparable Reaper. He swung it to and fro with speed that belied the weapon’s weight; hacking blows that were all about strength rather than finesse.

He wasn’t the worst. On the other side, leading the second of the largest cavalry columns, was a man it took her a moment to recognise. He wore armour, and it looked expensive. An open-faced helmet, a gleaming blade, a great black steed. It reared up, hooves flailing, and the rider lifted his sword. The soldiers around him cheered, taking strength from his mere presence amongst them. Albrihn. He galloped into the fray. Unlike Rykall, he fought with skill and precision, his sword darting out like a viper. No one could touch him. He was a demon, and a dozen had fallen before him in the mere moments that he rode through her field of vision.

“Orders, commander?” a hefty sergeant whose name she didn’t know bellowed. He was shoring up his shield with his shoulder, and gripped a pike in a bloody fist. She looked around for Aydis. She was lying on the ground, an arrow through her chest. She hadn’t even noticed her fall.

“Orders?” she murmured. They were looking at her expectantly, desperation in their eyes. They feared what she might say. They were Atlasian for the most part. They didn’t want to die here, doing this. “My orders…” She found herself rising to her feet unsteadily. Two cavalrymen rode straight for her, lances levelled. They probably didn’t even know who she was: just another target. She lifted her sword and then threw it to one side. It clattered onto the ground and, to her, sounded much louder than it really was. She lifted her empty hands. “Enough,” she whispered.

“Sir?!” the sergeant said, staring at her.

“Enough!” she repeated, louder.

Her soldiers seemed transfixed for a moment, but then they followed her lead. She was their commander. This was her command, now. Shields were lowered, pikes dropped. It rippled out like a stone dropped into a pond. Some didn’t notice, and they were ridden down as they tried to fight back, but slowly the word seemed to spread. Men and women dropped to their knees, hands raised, weapons discarded. Cavalry checked their advances, momentarily confused. Within moments, it was done. She stood at the epicentre of a surrendering army. One of the horses rode up to her, and a cavalryman peered down at her from beneath his helmet. “Who are you?” he asked.

“Take me to your Lord Marshall.”

They did as she asked, dismounting and leading her through the soldiers still on their knees. Their weapons were being gathered up and guards assigned to watch over them. Bodies were still left where they’d fallen. How many dead? Impossible to say. She’d probably never know. Perversely, fresh troops were still coming through the gates, and looked at what was happening with sheer bewilderment. Soon they joined their fellows though as the Atlasian forces herded them into the plaza.

Near the steps of the closest building, Albrihn stood beside his horse. The sky was beginning to turn pale, but the braziers burned high on either side, illuminating him in his resplendent armour. He removed his helmet and she was struck by his obvious nobility; his natural ease in command. Rykall was there too, cleaning off Reaper. He grinned menacingly at her. Other officers began to gather. She saw a Cyclops Keeper in the shadows too; a slender, handsome woman. Albrihn’s supposed lover? Then she saw Crale. She met her eyes and Hadrin bowed her head slightly, an acknowledgement that she’d been bested. Albrihn looked at her calmly and then stepped forward. One of the cavalrymen had picked up her sword. He passed it to her, point downwards. She took it and for a brief moment considered doing something truly stupid. But no. Slowly, wincing, she dropped down to one knee and presented her sword to Albrihn.

“As supreme commander of the forces loyal to Lord Saffrey, I offer my unconditional surrender.”

Albrihn regarded her impassively, and then he took the sword from her. A simple act of ceremony that she could see gave him no joy. He immediately passed it to an aide. “The throne accepts your surrender,” he said softly.

“Lord Albrihn,” she continued, “I ask for leniency with regards to my soldiers. They are guilty only of obeying their chain of command and many have suffered injury and deprivation already. I accept full responsibility for what has transpired and submit myself to the Empress’s justice.” She bowed her head. She realised she’d been rehearsing that speech for a long while now.

“Justice,” Rykall growled. “I’d be only too happy, Rayke. Just give the word.”

She looked up and met his eyes. The fury she saw didn’t surprise her. Ixion must have hurt him badly. She was surprised though to hear him refer to Albrihn by his father-name – evidently Crale had fabricated more than the notion of the population of the city hiding behind the Enclave’s walls.

“No,” Albrihn said.

“Why wait?” Rykall demanded. “She’s a traitor!”

“Perhaps…”

“Perhaps?!”

“This is no longer a battlefield, and so the justice of the battlefield won’t serve. She, and those others identified as conspirators in this rebellion, will be tried for their crimes by a civil court. An Atlantian jury will determine her fate: after all, her crimes were inflicted against Atlantis itself.”

Hadrin took a shaky breath. Her head was swimming again. “My lord,” she murmured, “if we’re done here, I’d appreciate the opportunity to seek assistance for my injuries.”

“The chirurgeons have already been summoned, and those skilled in healing will aid them.” He looked out across the plaza. “Those who can be saved, will be. Atlantis can’t afford to lose more soldiers.”

There was a pause, and she saw him looking around in confusion. “Did Saffrey enter?”

“I saw him,” the Keeper said, “on a horse, near the back.”

“Typical,” Rykall said with a snort.

“Did he escape?”

“He probably ran at the first sign of trouble. He’ll be out of the city by now, most like.”

Albrihn got a strange look in his eyes. “No,” he said slowly, “he won’t have given up so easily.” He turned around. The wide archway of the building led through and opened onto a wide, tree-lined avenue. It was a straight road to the palace itself. He gestured for his horse. “We’re not done here,” he said grimly.

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